time to change the way we view music and the arts

You Want To See What’s Under My G-String?

They say that when one pursues a Ph.D. degree, the underlying purpose behind the endeavor is to push the boundaries of human knowledge. Bachelor’s degrees teach, Master’s Degrees analyze and Doctorates create.

Though she might not have done it in official pursuit of a doctorate, one musician has taken the violin to an entirely new plane of performance possibilities.

Mari Kimura, a world class Japanese violinist, has developed a method of playing the violin that allows for her to access tones that sound beneath the previously thought-to-be lowest tone of a G below the Treble Staff. This note is attained by running a bow along the unaltered, “open” G-string on a violin, which is hence why anything lower was presumed impossible. For those unfamiliar, this is a perfectly tuned G tone, as played by an oboe, the usual tuning instrument for any symphonic orchestra.

The story of Ms. Kimura coming to regularly defy conventional violin capability really boils down to one of her many mentors who proposed she take up composition. The New York Times talks about the debut recital Kimura gave in 1994 at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, where she artfully utilized these groundbreaking “subharmonics,” as she calls them, in interpretations of pieces spanning original material and contemporary repertoire.

Where things get really interesting (as well as beneficial for both groups in terms of the research potential,) is the collaboration of scientific observation with artistic discovery. From a rough distance and/or to the non-musically familiar, Kimura’s description of how she attained the subharmonic tones is as follows:

“Step 1 in producing a subharmonic is “clunk,” a brusque, decisive smack of the bow on the G string. Step 2 is “drag,” the stroke itself, executed under unusually high pressure, at unusually slow speed and with unfailing steadiness. Step 3 is “release,” effectively the clunk in reverse.”

(Cit. NYT Article HERE.)

IRCAM, (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) is a musical research facility located in Paris, France, that has been working alngside Ms. Kimura to further investigate the strides she has taken with the violin, and more specifically her bow. Using Kimura’s method plainly described above, IRCAM has further explored the physical process she applies using a

“half finger[ed] glove equipped with electrodes that monitor the angle and speed of her bowing arm, allowing her to synchronize real-time acoustic performance with recorded material.”

The result of this kind of merger with technology and art leads to some fascinating pieces of original music and causes intrigue among musicians and composers because of the constant dilemma technology’s “ever-changing existence” presents.

Despite the presumed impermanence of technological incorporation with classical musical composition, what’s not impermanent is Mari Kimura’s personal goal connected to trying more modern approaches to performing. She is described as being a conglomeration of player, writer and scholar, who has studied a range of materials from the founding conservative to the unsettlingly contemporary and with such combined experience, she looks to befriend modern composition with the musician mentality of the classical traditionalists who helped bring performance and composition to where it is.

“Today there’s a division of labor between composers and interpreters. I’m trying to bring back the old way that was the norm for Vivaldi or Corelli or Tartini in the 17th and 18th centuries. They wrote for themselves and invented their own techniques. That’s what made them who they are. That’s how they made their mark in violin history. The tradition of the violin lies in creation. By being creative, you learn about tradition.”

…So perhaps, inherently, the violin was made for doctoral candidates, since it seems to be made for pushing the limits of musical convention. Shall we see a spike in the next wave of performance Ph.Ds? 😉

An example of Ms. Kimura’s work with the electrode glove and performance synchronization can be viewed below:

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